For Our Greatest President's Birthday

By James David Jacobs

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Feb. 12

Saturday marks the 202nd birthday of Abraham Lincoln. There was a time when it was common knowledge that February 12 was Lincoln's birthday, but since the advent of President's Day we've lost touch with the significance of individual birthdays. To me it seems particularly important to note Lincoln's actual birthday, since I can think of no better statement of rebuke to the forces of hate that killed him than to commemorate the day on which he came to life. As recent events have illustrated, those forces of hate are still with us, which makes it that much more urgent to remember the legacy of our greatest president and celebrate his gifts to our country. When people talk about "values" it seems particularly relevant to consider the values that Lincoln stood for and to claim them as American values.

Just as Lincoln has inspired more books than any other historical figure, he has also inspired many musicians. Two years ago the Nashville Symphony released a double-CD album on the Naxos label in honor of the Lincoln bicentennial called "Abraham Lincoln Portraits". Conductor Leonard Slatkin had over ninety pieces to choose from in assembling this album. In the end he chose eight of them, of which we will hear two in the 10:00 hour on Saturday.

Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) was a composer, conductor, musicologist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and a beloved teacher. Like his contemporary Aaron Copland, he ended up rejecting the dissonant modernist style that he was trained in and embraced a more accessible idiom, which he zealously embraced: "The Artist should not forget his mission, perhaps the most religious of all, of sustaining faith in the worthwhileness of art and thus of life." In 1946 he adapted the incidental music he had written for Paul Horgan's play about Lincoln entitled Death, Mr. President, into a twelve-movement suite called "Ford's Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865." Despite its structure as a series of miniatures the work flows like a symphonic poem, setting the stage with an ominous Preamble and taking the listener on a journey through a variety of moods before it reaches its inexorable conclusion. The twelve movements are:

Preamble
Walt Whitman and the Dying Soldier
Passing Troops
The Telegraph Fugue (an Etude for Strings - with Timpani)
Moonlight on the Savannah
The Theatre
The River Queen
Premonitions (a duet with a hall clock)
Pennsylvania Avenue, April 9, 1865
Good Friday, 1865
The Long Rain
Conclusion

The second movement incorporates Bacon's song setting of Whitman's The Last Invocation:

At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress'd house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks--with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.

Tenderly--be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh,
Strong is your hold O love.)

The River Queen is the ship on which Lincoln met with his military commanders; April 9 was the day Lee surrendered to Grant, ending the Civil War (hence the inclusion of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in this movement); and Good Friday is the day Lincoln was assassinated.

After this work we will hear Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" narrated by Barry Scott, one of Nashville's finest actors and the Producing Artistic Director for The American Negro Playwright Theatre.

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